What’s the Hardest Thing to Read in Another Language?

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Have you ever stared down at a page of writing in your second language and just felt overwhelmed? You’re not alone.

You think long = hard. You give up before you even start. You turn to poetry. Poems are short. Poems should be easy … but those little, innocent looking poems are the hardest things to read in another language.

The problem with poetry isn’t the vocabulary or length; it’s the conceptual complexity – the ideas. Metaphors, cultural references, and word forms as art forms make a poem the toughest literary form for language learners.

Here’s the ranking of literary forms from easiest to hardest:
1. Facts (news)
2. Literary text (books)
3. Poetry

Let’s compare samples:

Fact Sample:
Today, several demonstrators marched on Capitol Hill in protest of proposed gun legislation. Congress is expected to vote on the measure that comes in the wake of several shootings across the country.

Poetry Sample:
A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him,–did you not,
His notice sudden is.

This is Emily Dickenson’s opening stanza from the poem ‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass’. Who is this fellow? What’s he doing in the grass? Sounds kind of kinky – except that it was written in the 1800s.

So what’s your strategy for reading poems in your second language?

First, don’t start with poetry if you are a beginning learner. Second, read about the poet and understand the setting for the poem before you begin reading. Third, have a teacher (or more advanced learner) available to help you with metaphors. The problem with metaphors in another language is that you don’t know they’re metaphors. Language learners are so trusting that the surface meaning is the true meaning. For example, are they really talking about an apple? Or is this a biblical reference? You’ll need help with these.

Finally, I challenge you to memorize a famous poem in your second language (and really understand the meaning). This comes in handy when you’re making an impromptu speech, dating, or drinking at the local pub. You will impress the heck out of your native friends!


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What’s the hardest thing to read in another language?